I AM a number, I will be a free man.
Hong Kong protesters have flipped the defining statement repeatedly issued by Number Six in the 1960s cult TV series, The Prisoner: ‘I am not a number, I am a free man’.
They readily identify themselves by the start date of their street protests: 926 (26 September); they show affinity with 8964 (6 April 1989), the day the Chinese authorities broke up the pro-democracy protest camp in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
In the East, pro-democracy activists are accustomed to using numbers to sidestep censorship. In their eyes, numbers can be symbols of freedom.
Largely impersonal, because not attached to a named person; but by no means inhuman.
On the Western side of the world, however, protestors rarely regard numbers in such a positive light. They don’t see themselves in numbers; they don’t look comfortable even when – not often nowadays – they find themselves in great numbers. Being one of a number seems almost as hurtful as being reduced to a number.
No freedom, they seem to be saying, without first protecting my personality.
In Hong Kong there appears to be less concern about loss of personality.
When thousands of protestors cross their forearms at the same moment, with one voice semaphoring ‘wrong’ to chief executive C.Y. Leung and, behind him, Beijing, they don’t feel the need to be embarrassed about acting in unison.
Instead, in many different ways – passers-by spraying sit-down demonstrators with cool water; constant litter patrols and the sharing out of visors and masks for use against police tear gas and pepper spray – the level of cooperation among Hong Kong protesters and their supporters suggests that they are comfortable not only in their own skin; but also in each others’.
Meanwhile in the West the cult of personality threatens to rarefy still further the already intermittent call for freedom.